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Public policy, climate and natural disasters

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Are we right to blame the recent floods on global warming? Will the current IPCC view on climate change still hold true in five years’ time? Is the joint Parliamentary committee on climate change right to ask for more than 60 per cent emissions cuts by 2050? And will anything the government does protect people in danger of flooding? Martin Livermore looks at the issues

As we are all aware, there has been massive flooding in parts of the UK this year. Some say this is unprecedented and, although few would make an absolutely direct link (at least in public), there is plenty of comment about the increase in such extreme weather as climate continues to change. Maybe so, but “unprecedented” floods have occurred many times before, and certainly well before the idea of human-induced climate change was ever mooted.

It is undeniable that the public need to be protected from flooding and that the emergency services should be sufficiently well equipped to deal with the times when defences are breached. However, this is completely independent of what causes the flooding in the first place. For those directly affected, assigning a cause may not seem an immediately important topic but it is, because it determines policy and how taxpayers money is spent.

If we accept the prevailing view that an increasing number of natural disasters are likely to be a consequence of rising average temperatures and that these are driven primarily by our use of fossil fuels, then the current policy path of carbon reduction is a rational response. But it is not cost-free. If it was cheaper to have a smaller carbon footprint, then the majority of people would already have one.

Attempting to reduce emissions via a complex range of initiatives such as the Renewables Obligation, tax breaks for biofuels, subsidies for micro-generation etc takes money from the Exchequer and means that less is available for other purposes. Is the government going to cut spending on the NHS or education? No, but it will rein in funding of a range of less obvious initiatives, including flood defences. I don’t mean to suggest that it is a straight choice between carbon reduction in the long term and preventing flooding in the short term. It’s not as simple as that, but there will still inevitably be a degree of trade-off.

So what if the basis for carbon reduction policies is not as sound as we think? Don’t forget that we are told by scientists running computer models of the climate to expect warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers rather than summer floods. There is also a school of thought which says that warmer oceans will lead to more intense hurricanes. After the New Orleans disaster (related more to the state of defences than the not-particularly-intense hurricane Katrina), some people were predicting that 2006 would be a particularly bad hurricane season. In fact, it was one of the quietest in recent years. We still have a lot to learn about weather patterns.

And while we are assured that the “human fingerprint” on climate change is unmistakable, this seems more like wishful thinking from people who suppose they know the truth. This is based purely on a belief that natural drivers of climate change are sufficiently well understood that changes in weather patterns can only be explained by rising greenhouse gas levels. Suggestions that too little is known about the effect of variations in solar magnetism, for example, are dismissed out of hand as having been considered and found wanting. On the other hand, legitimate criticism of anomalies between real-life observation and climate models is treated with equal distain.

Are scientists right to be so certain? A new paper by researchers from the University of California and NASA suggests not. They have studied the infamous Asian “brown cloud”, pollution from burning wood and fossil fuels which hangs over much of the continent. It has been known for some time that the aerosols which make up the cloud reflect some of the Sun’s rays and therefore have a small cooling effect on the Earth’s surface. However, the American scientists have now shown that the cloud also has a significant warming effect on the lower atmosphere: as much as do greenhouse gases. In particular, they say, this combined effect is enough to account for the well-publicised melting of Himalayan glaciers.

This is a good illustration that science is continually making new discoveries. If the effect of Asian pollution had been this poorly understood, what about other factors? Will the current IPCC view on climate change still hold true in five years’ time? In the meantime, policymakers are pushing ahead on the basis that nothing will change. The joint Parliamentary committee on climate change has just suggested that the government’s draft bill may not be stringent enough. In their view, the minimum 60% emissions cuts by 2050 may not be sufficient.

By this reckoning, we can all be in for some very significant and complex (and possibly ineffectual) policies aimed at controlling our energy use. Will this influence our climate in decades to come? We don’t know. Will it do anything to protect people in danger of flooding? No.

Martin Livermore is director of the Scientific Alliance, and author of ‘Climate Change: a Guide to the Scientific Uncertainties’, published by the Centre for Policy Studies.

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